At a recent event in St Petersburg, Putin compared himself to Tsar Peter the Great, saying:
Peter the Great waged the great northern war for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russia’s] … When he founded the new capital, none of the European countries recognised the territory as Russian. They all recognised it as Swedish territory. The Slavs together with the Finno-Ugric people had always lived there. Moreover this territory had been under the control of the Russian state … Why did he go there? He went there to take it back and strengthen it, that’s what he was doing. Well, it seems it has also fallen to us to take back and strengthen
This has led various commentators to claim: “See, we told you Putin’s invasion had nothing to do with NATO or the West. Now even he admits it’s just an imperial land grab!” As someone who has claimed that NATO and the West are partly to blame for the war in Ukraine, do I now have to admit that I was wrong? No. And I’ll explain why.
The first reason is that Putin’s ‘Peter the Great’ comparison doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. So if I thought my position was wrong, I would have said so by now.
In other words, there’s quite a bit of evidence that Putin’s an ‘imperialist’ – that he believes Ukraine, or at least parts of Ukraine, rightfully belong to Russia. The most significant piece of evidence in this regard is his rambling 2021 essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’.
So even I admit Putin’s an imperialist – that’s surely case closed? Not so fast.
Saying that Putin’s an ‘imperialist’ isn’t actually a very strong claim. Many people around the world are ‘imperialists’ in this sense. There are Spaniards who see Gibraltar as part of Spain. There are Argentinians who see the Falklands as part of Argentina. There are Mexicans who see Texas as part of Mexico.
The key question is this. When a country’s leaders see a particular foreign territory as, in some sense, part of their own, under what circumstances will they accept the status quo – rather than resorting to conquest? The answer is simple: they will do so when the benefits of accepting the status quo outweigh the costs.
Let’s apply this logic to Russia and Ukraine. What were the costs of invading? There was the possibility that a lot of Russians would die in a bloody war, as well as the possibility that other countries would impose crippling sanctions on Russia’s economy.
And what about the benefits? Aside from the advantages of having a larger territory and population, as well as access to certain natural resources, there were the costs of not invading. And here’s where NATO and the West come in.
Since the end of the Cold War, Russian leaders (not just Putin) have continually expressed their opposition to NATO expansion. And they’ve made clear that NATO membership for Ukraine is an absolute red line. Even the great Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn believed this, telling Der Spiegel magazine:
The situation then became worse when NATO started to spread its influence and draw the ex-Soviet republics into its structure. This was especially painful in the case of Ukraine, a country whose closeness to Russia is defined by literally millions of family ties among our peoples, relatives living on different sides of the national border. At one fell stroke, these families could be torn apart by a new dividing line, the border of a military bloc.
Then comes the reply: “Ukraine wasn’t a member of NATO, and even if it were, what threat would it pose to Russia?” But this is disingenuous.
Ukraine and the US had already made substantial inroads towards NATO membership. And in any case, whether Ukraine eventually joined NATO is less important than the fact it was in a close military alliance with the US – an alliance that formed after a Western-backed coup that toppled a pro-Russian president.
The ways in which this alliance threatened Russian interests (including its security interests) are obvious, and I have outlined them before. To quote myself:
In opposing a hostile military build-up in Ukraine, Russia was behaving in exactly the same way as Australia did after the recent security deal between China and the Solomon Islands. The Australian Prime Minister announced that China must not build a military base “on our doorstep”, and that doing so would be a “red line”. Is this threat an egregious violation of the Solomon Islands’ sovereignty, or is it a predictable reaction to Australia’s regional interests being threatened?
Returning to the main point of this article, a major cost of not invading was the possibility that threats to Russian interests would actually materialise. And it is this cost (i.e., benefit of invading) that could have been eliminated had the West followed a different policy from 2014 onwards.
For example, the West could have not supported the ‘Revolution of Dignity’. It could have not recognised the post-Maidan government (almost a quarter of whose ministers were from a party the EU denounced as “racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic”). It could have insisted that Ukraine respect the rights of its ethnic Russian minority. And above all, it could have recognised that Ukraine would be best served by a policy of neutrality.
There’s a second reason I don’t have to admit that I was wrong. If you’re going to take Putin’s public statements (in this case, his ‘Peter the Great’ comparison) as evidence of his motivations, then you have to consider all his public statements. And the simple fact is that he has mentioned NATO or the West over and over again.
‘NATO’ appears 40 times in his February 21st speech, and another 9 times in his February 24th speech. The latter even clarifies that “the question is not about NATO itself”, which “merely serves as a tool of US foreign policy”. What’s more, since the start of the invasion, Russia has called for legal guarantees that Ukraine will never be allowed into NATO.
I do not dispute that Putin is an ‘imperialist’ who believes Ukraine, or at least parts of Ukraine, rightfully belong to Russia. My claim is simply that if the West had followed a different policy, Putin would not have acted on this belief by launching his brutal and illegal invasion.